Many wildlife photographic enthusiasts in South Africa are reliant on self-drive safaris to destinations such as the Kruger National Park. It is within this context that I thought I would share some practical tips for making sure you come back from this location with memorable photos, despite the fact that the sightings may have been busy and you could perhaps not have gotten the best positioning for your photos.
I am known for waxing eloquent, but for this post I will stay brief…
Oh, and all the photos I’m including were taken in the Kruger National Park area, often driving around with my wife and kids – so no excuses for having kids in the car etc.
1. The Early Photographer catches the Golden Light
You all know by now that the early hours of the morning and the last light of day produces the best light (given it’s not raining). Nature photographers like to refer to these periods as “golden hour”. In National Parks there are 3 reasons to get out of the gate first in the morning. First off, it’s one way to ensure you’re alone at the first proper sighting (and not driving in someone else’s dust if the roads are not tarred)and it’ll ensure you have your pick of positioning at that first proper sighting.
Secondly – you’ll be able to photograph in great light (besides, it’s just great to be out in the early hours of the morning with the window down, taking in the smells and sounds of the bush and the sight of the first rays of sunlight kissing the earth). Lastly, it’s a prime opportunity to still get some of the night’s predators on their last patrols before settling down for the day (read: big and small cats).
2. Enjoy the small things
When visiting National Parks and public game reserves you need to learn to appreciate the small things. I’ve had some spectacular sightings of the “high profile” species in these parks, but if you end up seeking for these during your entire stay you will be very frustrated and end up not enjoying the experience like you should.
Use your game drives to tick off and photograph new bird species and smaller, more mundane mammal species which you come across.
Nature is not always big and brash like an elephant, it’s also gentle and graceful like a butterfly.
3. Know where to park for the lens you’ve got
Sounds weird, but if you are using a telephoto lens longer than 200mm you know that you can get a pretty nice low angle effect by shooting from some distance away.
Kruger’s dense bush doesn’t always help for this, but sometimes parking a little further away than all the other tourists can give you a good vantage point.
4. Context, Context, Context
So much of wildlife photography these days is focussed on getting as close to the animals as possible with long lenses, creating clean-cut portraits and blurring out all the background and surroundings. I do it too. Yet we often forget that these kinds of images can be created in zoos and game parks that house semi-captive animals with great ease.
That doesn’t take anything away from the challenge of getting these pleasing portraits in the dense bush of the South African lowveld, but I do think there’s a great benefit in framing your images a bit wider and showing more of the animal’s environment…placing your viewer in the context of the scene as it were.
Next time you are out in the field, perhaps reach for your wide-angle or mid-zoom lens before snapping with your superzoom or telephoto lens.
6. Patience is a virtue
I’m not going to belabour this one. To get the meaningful shots, in most cases, you need to be patient. So many people in these reserves drive from one sighting to the other (they look out for cars parked and go and find out what they’re looking at), without knowing the joy of finding your own sighting and “making” your own luck.
If you come across lions sleeping (like they often do), wait around a bit…they will normally start waking up late in the afternoon, get active, socialise with each other and then head off for the night’s hunt.
The image below was captured in the Kruger Park after waiting for over 5 hours at the impala kill in the tree in the hope of the leopard arriving before sunset.
7. Obey the Park rules!
This almost seems like a misnomer to actually mention this, but it’s appalling how many people actually just show complete disregard for the rules.
They exist for conservation/preservation of the environment and fauna/flora as well as to preserve the experience of the other visitors in line with the ethos of the reserve as set out by the owners/founders/managers. Yes, in some parks and reserves in other African countries you are allowed out of your vehicle anywhere at own risk, but in the majority of SA parks/reserves, you need to stay put. This levels the playing field as well. I recently heard about more than one photographer in the Kgalagadi who shoots low angle shots by getting out of their vehicles and lying down on the ground close by when they think nobody else is around to see them.
That’s just unfair to the rest of us “getting our shots” while abiding by the regulations. We need to both protect these natural areas and protect the experience that other visitors cherish in these areas.
This includes not littering, obeying rules about where you can get out, sticking to the speed limit (nothing irks me more than seeing road-kill in a National Park!) and sticking to gate times.
8. One last tip…
This one is especially valid in Kruger: don’t come between an elephant cow and her calf, and don’t seperate members of a breeding herd by driving through when they’re crossing the road!
You might just see this before your car rolls over…
I hope this post proves helpful to you. Kruger may be a bit commercialised and it’s normally quite busy, but it’s still one of our most amazing pieces of preserved natural beauty in South Africa…and you can have pretty good sightings and a jolly good time if you know where to go and when to go.
I generally prefer the northern parts of the park these days as it’s quieter and more remote.
You work a tad harder for sightings but so what? At least there are parts in the north where you can still sit with a pride of lions for a whole hour before another car shows up…
Until next time!